Cannabis Legalization in Canada Is a Giant, Imperfect Leap Forward

    On October 16, a legal national market for cannabis opens in Canada, as a result of the Canadian Parliament’s June approval of  the Cannabis Act. Canada is the second and largest country to legalize, after Uruguay did so in 2013.

    Although cannabis for medical use has been legal in Canada since 2001, adults–aged over 18 in Alberta and Quebec, and over 19 in other provinces–can now buy it for recreational purposes from licensed businesses. According to a province survey conducted by the Associated Press, over 100 stores selling cannabis products are opening on Day One. Additionally, Canadians can legally grow their own cannabis for personal use without a license.

    “It’s going to change the global debate on drug policy,” said marijuana policy researcher Hannah Hetzer of the Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s no other country immediately considering legalizing the nonmedical use of cannabis, but I think Canada will provide almost the permission for other countries to move forward.”

    The Cannabis Act, aimed at “protect[ing] public health and public safety,” also seeks to prevent youth consumption, and to “establish strict product safety and product quality requirements.”

    But even though the Act intends “to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system” it still maintains the illegality of some marijuana use and trade, “imposing serious criminal penalties for those operating outside the legal framework.”

    A minimum security of CA$5,000 is required to obtain a cannabis license, and applicants who are the subject of a receivership, having been unable to pay back a loan, are ineligible. As we have seen in US jurisdictions, such restrictions exclude vendors without such funds, or access to capital or loans.

    These requirements effectively criminalize poorer participants in the industry, including disproportionate numbers of applicants from the communities that have been most targeted by prohibition. Concerns also remain that insufficient legal supply and the high prices due to Canada’s excise tax will boost an illegal market that maintains lower prices and easier access.

    Marijuana prohibition, which originated with racist intent, is happily on the wane in Canada. But much work remains to be done to further reduce criminalization and support equality.

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